The brilliance (well…) of this passage lies in the ingenious but legitimate way it links Parks’s two main themes: the eternal one of obsessive love, and the topical one of the clichéification of Europe, plus the recurring motif of the classical scholar’s nostalgia for the ancient world:
the way they lived inside the natural world, at home in it in a way we never can be, the patterned constellations over their heads throbbing with deities, the deep wells they drew their water from encircled by serpents, and not a single holy text (I’m thinking of pre-Orphic times) or social manifesto, or sniff of political correctness to slip a credit card between themselves and the sacred.
Apart from the mannerly Georg and the unmannerly Colin, the lectors on the journey include a harsh Greek lady, a bland German surgeon’s wife, a smug Irish novelist, and a terribly correct Italian avvocato not too correct to bed one of the students. All these characters are ironically seen to a Dickensian extent, and it seems a miracle that Parks has found room for them (and a few others) in a mere 262 pages. Even more lecherous and chronically plastered than Colin is Vikram Griffiths, a voluble Welshman with an Indian mother. He claims to be the only colored member of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, and is the instigator and organiser of the protest trip. He has two divorced wives, an analyst, no money, a custody struggle over his child, disgusting catarrh, and a smelly dog on whom his otherwise rejected love centers and who slobbers all over the bus. In spite of these inconveniences, Jerry manages to see and convey Vikram’s considerable charm and even greater pathos, and the others see it too; besides political correctness compels them to make an effort to love the representative of not just one but two minorities.
The second part of Europa opens in Strasbourg with a memorable description of cafard. Jerry is lying on his hotel bed.
All I can see is that headlights pass at regular intervals stretching and flitting over wall and ceiling, their yellow glow softened by the synthetic mesh of the curtains, but with swift shards, as though of unpleasantly illuminating thoughts, where the material doesn’t pull to at the top. Attended by a slight rise and fall in the background swell of traffic noise, the intermittent brightness passes, a split second before the auditory peak, over a reproduction of something from Picasso’s blue period, a reproduction so flat in its printed melancholy and so poorly framed in what must be extruded poly-something-or-other, it immediately makes you aware of all the other reproductions of famous paintings bought in bulk no doubt for all the other fifty or so rooms of this prefabricated, out-of-town hotel so suitable for accommodating large and unprosperous groups of coach travellers – pensioners, strikers, pilgrims…
There follows a meditation on Picasso’s lovers in their cheap reproduction, which ends:
You can see these two are at the thousandth attempt now, I mean at recapturing whatever it was, they’re years, if not decades on, so that it’s not really a conscious seeking they’re engaged in any more, they’re not expecting to recapture anything, but more a sort of mysterious imposition, this clasping, this rehearsal of intimacy, this placing of cheek against cheek, a blue and green ceremony they have forgotten the origins of, like the ceremonies Plutarch mentioned in Quaestiones Graecae and suggested were the most faithfully observed of all, the ones nobody could understand or explain to him any more.
Vikram gets so outrageously drunk during the delegation’s dinner in Strasbourg that the lectors decide he is unfit to present their petition and they elect Jerry to do it instead. And so he does, stringing together clichés with the best of them. His excellent performance is interrupted by a shriek (in Greek) from the Greek lector: the humiliated Vikram has been found hanging in the lavatory of the parliament building. Even this is not quite the end of the story.
After identifying the body, Jerry spends four hours alone in the Parliament’s piously nondenominational Meditation Room:
The thing that most terrified the Greeks was they would be deceived by the gods. They would receive a message. A dream, an oracle. Attack now, Agamemnon. Clearly it was a message. Clearly it came from the gods. But it was the wrong message. It led to defeat. Or they would be invaded by a passion Phaedra’s for Hippolytus. Clearly it was an invasion.- Clearly it came from outside, from the gods. But it was the wrong passion. It led to madness. To suicide. As whole nations can be led to madness and suicide sometimes, on the back of the wrong dream, the wrong passion.
Jerry, of course, doesn’t believe in the gods (though he may wish he did): he puts Vikram’s death and his own infatuation down to an ‘enzyme shift’ (this is a complete misreading, but never mind). The only difference, for Parks, is in the nomenclature: God the Father, the Greek pantheon, enzymes – it’s all the same, ineluctable and beyond human control.